Friday, March 16, 2012


I think all Mali PCVs will agree that kids are both a saving grace and also a menace during their service and honestly, half the time they are both at the same time. It is impossible to integrate in a village without getting to know the kids. In Malian society, if you spend time with kids, their parents will immediately like you, as a matter of fact, they are almost required to like you according to their culture. Not only is getting to know the kids important to gain their parent’s respect, but if you don’t earn the respect of the kids themselves then they will torment you non-stop, and they are tireless in this regard. You get called toubabou constantly and they never seem to learn your name, they peep through the window when you’re asleep, they mock you, and ask you for your clothes and for money. There are many times when even after earning their respect, you wake up early one Saturday morning, go outside, and find that they are in the process of picking all the un-ripe vegetables in your garden essentially destroying all the hard work you put in for the past 2 months. But these early frustrations are easily made up for when they become your close friends and stop by to chat. One of my most notable conversations was when another volunteer was over and we spent over an hour talking about martial arts and convincing the kids that the other volunteer was a ninja. Also, in Malian culture you can choose anybody that is younger than you and send them to get you food or tea or just about anything you want. Although you can do this any time, when you know the kids, they do it a lot more willingly and quickly. So, when you are hanging out reading on a lazy weekend and you don’t want to get up for breakfast, you can call a kid over and “ci” (send him on a mission) him to get you something. On bad days, all it takes is for kids to do something silly or get a baby to sit on your lap to brighten your day. Every volunteer probably also has a story about winning over a baby or small child. When meeting a baby or child for the first time, and Malians think it’s hysterical, they are frightened by white people and cry whenever they see one. Naturally, this leads to a game where the mother turns the baby around to face you, at which point the baby cries and the mother laughs and comforts it until it stops crying. Then she turns the baby around again, the baby cries, the mother laughs and so on and so forth. Volunteers try really hard to win children over and make them stop crying. Depending on the age of the child, this can be really challenging.

My host family in Tominian often have people over, but one woman, Lavielle, is almost like a daughter to them. She’s a teacher in a nearby village but she comes over once a month to visit and whenever she comes over she brings her one year old daughter, named Mami with her. For the past year and a half, I have been trying to win over Mami. I tried making faces at her, I tried tickling her, I tried picking her up and nothing seemed to work. It was always the same scenario over and over again: I would walk in the house, greet everyone, call our her name, and as soon as she saw me she would bury herself in her mother’s lap and everyone would laugh. Then, after a couple minutes, she would forget I was there, crawl around, see me, and start crying… and everyone would laugh. My first breakthrough was a couple months ago during watermelon season. Mami loves watermelons. So every time I came over for lunch, I would take a small piece of watermelon and hand it to her, always trying to get her to crawl a little bit closer to me than the last time. Very suspiciously, she’d reach out as far as possible without leaving her mother’s lap to grab it. These were very minor victories but it seemed we couldn’t make any more progress. After watermelon season came papaya season. Mami likes papayas less than watermelons, but she was still willing to make a small effort. Then one day, I waved as I was leaving, and she waved back. Encouraged, I went closer, but she hid again, clearly hoping that by waving I would leave faster, rather than come back. Finally, during the currently waning carrot season, about a week ago, I hopelessly held out my hand for maybe the hundredth time, and this time, she greeted me. Everybody in the house was so happy and laughed so much that she started smiling and did it again. During the past few days, not only do I look forward to having lunch with my host family, but I look forward to playing with Mami and watching her laugh with everyone whenever she grabs my hand to say hi. Actually, she went from hiding to smiling and bouncing a bit when I come by.


Mami finally wants to hang out.
Daniel - He comes to hang out every once in a while.
The one on the left is one of my favorite kids. We can't actually communicate because she only speaks Bomu, but she understands Bambara so we get by.

Everybody was dressed up for Christmas.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

This is an article an RPCV Dan Evans posted on his facebook and agree with what is written. Although there is financial and social disparity in Africa, there is also great potential. There isn't a single answer or a single problem, and in reality it tends to be a vicious cycle that involves cultural and social impasses. In Peace Corps, we try to emphasize hand-washing, talking about AIDS, and other problems that can be solved either with an increase in knowledge or a behavioral change. Unfortunately, I find that more and more we sound like a broken record. Just about everybody knows and understands the arguments given by NGOs and foreigners about hand-washing. When people go in and explain hand-washing, people do it right and give many explanations. Malians know the key words and phrases that will make development workers happy or that will get UNICEF to provide funding (I once barely suppressed laughing at a Malian who submitted to me a proposal to have food and gifts given for an event teaching about AIDS and child sex trafficking in my area - it sounds bad, but although I agreed with the AIDS issue, it was clear that the man I was speaking with knew exactly what to include to get funding especially because although sex trafficking may be an issue in some parts of Mali where there are gold mines and such, I know for a fact that sex trafficking is not an issue where I am, some 500 km or more from any gold mine). It's funny when people try to provoke a response from me. They will say things like, "I plan on marrying 4 wives. Is that bad?" or "I want 10 children per wife". They say these things because they have experience with other development workers who get excited or angry and try to change their minds. For me, as long as it's cultural, I tell them that it's not a problem and that they should invite me to their wedding or baptism. But with issues like hand-washing, I try to explain to them my reasoning.
Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend (the accountant at the IFM so clearly educated) about hand-washing and tried to explain to him that water wasn't enough. After a long debate, with me saying that in the past the death rate was higher, at a younger age, and him saying that as long as children lived past the age of 10 they survived until 100 we clearly weren't getting anywhere. So I asked him why people die early now and he said it was because of all kinds of new diseases that occur because of living closer together and brought by foreigners. Some of this was true, but the idea that malaria was new and the fact that they say malaria for almost all illnesses because it's so common frustrated me. The decisive factor was using his own cultural ideas to my advantage. I told him, "Ok, say I'm wrong, malaria is brand new to Mali along with a crazy number of diseases that were never around to kill or weaken your ancestors, but NOW, there are all these crazy diseases, and they cannot be washed away simply with water, and maybe they didn't need to protect themselves before but clearly now things are different and soap is necessary." I felt bad putting it this way because I felt like I was lying, but it at least put things into perspective for him.
I also might have just uninstalled my director's keyboard on his laptop... so I need to fix that. I'll finish this post later...

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bike Tour/Christmas

It has been a long time since I blogged even though I have internet just about every day, but daily busy work isn't very interesting.

But! From the 12th to the 16th, I broke the mold. I believe I've spoken about stage houses/transit houses, but as a reminder, stage houses are houses owned by Peace Corps in larger towns that act as safety houses and allow volunteers who are far from a bank to spend the night when they need to come in. All volunteers are assigned a house, and I'm assigned to the San house. Everybody that is assigned to San is referred to as San Kaw.

So among San Kaw, there are only 3 of us on the Mopti road, and I have been to see them during their village's market days, but the rest of the volunteers in our Kaw are between the Segou road (going directly West out of San), and the Koutiala road (going directly South out of San. They are all clustered and I figured I could easily bike from one site to the other and getting to see 8 villages in 5 days. On top of that, there is a new group of volunteers (a stage) that arrived a month or so ago and their site visit was planned for that week giving me the opportunity to see their sites as well. Their arrival also meant that most volunteers would be at their sites to get as much time in before the site visit party which happens for every new stage that arrives.

Overall I biked about 200 km with the longest trip in 1 day being 80 km. I was very happy with myself, because I was going at a speed of roughly 25-30 km per hour on a mountain bike.

It was great to see all the volunteers one on one and see how they behave at site or what they're working on. I also confirmed that I really did want to be in a small village. Visiting friends who live in villages of less than 400 people was awesome. Life is more difficult in those villages but the atmosphere is different and there is a level of community that seems to be degraded in bigger towns. The culture is also more traditional, making it more apparent in everyday life. Here in Tominian, it's very difficult to break into the traditional culture, especially because I don't speak Bomu. This doesn’t mean that I do not enjoy where I am nor that being in a bigger town prevents me from getting work done. Actually, I often feel that being in a bigger town gives me more options and opportunities to have an impact on a greater number of people than I might have in a small village. It just goes to show that every Peace Corps Volunteers experience is different.

In other news, Merry Christmas! Last year I went hiking in Dogon country with other volunteers so I didn’t get to experience a Malian Christmas. I have to say that it was definitely an experience. It was basically exactly like Tabaski (besides the ritualization of the slaughter), but with beer. I originally thought the families would kill a pig, but almost everybody killed a sheep because most of the families have Muslim friends who they invited to celebrate and in order for them to participate, they couldn’t kill a pig. My host dad actually asked a Muslim butcher to come the day before to properly kill the sheep so that he could invite his Muslim friends. For me, this emphasized the solidarity and tolerance among Malians. Regardless of whether a person is Muslim or Christian or Animist, everybody celebrates each other’s festivals. As Malians say, “An be nyogonfe” (We are together). Everybody celebrates together, everybody suffers together, everybody helps each other out. Everybody is together. Besides Tabaski, or maybe a French wedding, I don’t know if I’ve ever eaten so much before and everywhere I went I was given an entire meal, a beer or a coke or two, and tea. So for most of the day I made the rounds of town greeting people and refusing, in vain, the food and drinks they were trying to give me. It was a lot of fun, and although it was very different from Christmas' in the past, I really enjoyed myself.

Monday, November 28, 2011


My homologue (Youssouf), his wife, and their son.
Find Mario!
From left to right: Youssouf's brother, his wife, his son, his mom, Youssouf
Kader (Youssouf's son)

Malian BBQ
Youssouf's mom
Left overs. We had the head for breakfast the next morning.
The skins.
The women preparing lunch.

Snacks! Liver, heart, lungs, kidneys, etc, all the good stuff.
Preparing to kill the sheep (I took a picture of the actual cutting and blood being drained into the hole but figured not everyone wanted to see that).
Lunch! ... and dinner... and breakfast... and tomorrow's lunch.

Hanging out
Repelling off the arch, with all the trees it was hard to get a better picture.
The pictures ended up coming out backwards but this is the rock in the first climbing picture.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Climbing, Halloween, and Tabaski

A week and a half ago, I decided to take a little trip. Halloween was coming up, and besides making sure everything was organized, things were going smoothly at site. So, I packed up some clothes, packed my bug hut and went to San. It turns out Mali is an amazing place to find or make clothes for a Halloween costume. There are fabric stores everywhere and tailors that can make anything you want. On top of that, there are stores selling old clothes so you can find all kinds of qwerky things, kind of like a bunch of large goodwill stores which we call “Dead Toubab Stores” (There is a box or a set of drawers at each stage house that we call “Dead Toubab” too because people leave clothes they don’t want while they’re still in country or that they leave behind for other volunteers once they end their service). In San, I looked around for some semi-fancy fabric for Tabaski, took it to the tailor and told him I’d be back in a week to pick it up. Then I went trawling through the old clothes and found myself cheap black slacks and since I couldn’t find a ruffled shirt, I settled for a red lace-up shirt, perfect for a pirate costume. At the stage house, I picked up a pirate hat from the house’s Dead Toubab (I can’t imagine how many Peace Corps Mali Halloweens it’s seen), and grabbed the sword I had bought last Christmas in Dogon country. The next day I jumped on a bus, sword, pirate hat, and all, and rode out to Bamako. Fortunately, I had planned ahead and got a good bus (last time I went to Bamako it took me 11 hours), so 6 hours later, I was in the Bamako stage house meeting up with 3 other guys to go to a town called Siby 2 hours south of Bamako where there’s some good climbing and a tall rock arch. In the morning, we grabbed climbing gear from the rental place and hiked up to the rocks overlooking the town.

For the next couple days we climbed around the rocks. Although I really enjoy rock climbing, I’ve never had a chance to climb outdoors on real rocks. Routes had been set up by some experienced climbers before so all the anchor points were in securely and all we had to do was set the rope to the top anchor. On the last day, we decided to repel, because even though the view from the top of the arch was excellent, there was something amazing about being suspended 50 feet in mid-air.

Halloween was fun. A large group of volunteers went to Bougouni where we invaded a local hotel with crazy costumes. I can only imagine what the Malians were thinking when they saw everybody going down the street as Lady Gaga or every character in Mario Kart. Lots of fun, and made me look forward to Thanksgiving.

Tabaski in a nutshell: Tabaski, also known as Seliba in Bambara (big party) is to celebrate the day when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son to him. So Abraham took his son off to demonstrate his devotion and loyalty to God. Then, just before he was about to sacrifice him, God switched his son with a ram and so Abraham sacrificed the ram. Now, every year for Tabaski, Muslims kill a male sheep to show their loyalty to God. So Saturday I went to the town of Bla to celebrate with my homologue’s family. Sunday morning my homologue went to the mosque and as soon as he got back, we changed out of our nice clothes and took pictures with the sheep. He had bought one recently, and the second he had bought almost a year ago and tied up in his backyard to let it grow and fatten. With his younger brothers and his son, they dug a small hole, held down the sheep and cut its throat, letting as much blood as possible out into the hole. Then, we set the sheep aside and let me help to skin it. After setting the skin aside to dry, we removed all the organs, and butchered the rest of the animal. Together with Youssouf, my homologue, we grilled the liver, kidneys, lungs, and other insides as the first course/snack. While we were grilling, the women were preparing rice, boiling meat, and cleaning the stomach and intestines to be eaten later. So then we snacked on liver, and sheep ribs and all the good stuff. After that we sat around and drank tea for a bit before lunch was ready. Once everybody was completely full from eating more meat, we drank more tea. During the first day of Tabaski (there are technically 3 but the 1st is the biggest), you are expected to go greet everybody in town that you know. So for the next 5 hours or so, I biked behind Youssouf’s motorcycle as we went from concession to concession greeting, including the head of the Peace Corps education sector Yaya Bouare who is originally in Bla. By the time we got back it was night, and so we had a some dinner, another couple cups of tea, and I went to my friend Max’s place to crash for the night.

While all these adventures were happening, things were busy at my site. Reminder: I’m working on a subsidy program where the parents of students pay 1000 CFA per month and community donations cover 700 CFA per month to allow the student to eat a meal 4 days a week all month long.

30 more students decided to participate in the lunch subsidies so we now have over 120 students split into two groups eating lunch together. Community interest is growing and so we are getting more and more donations including the Conseil du Cercle, who are technically in charge of the middle schools, who have pledged to cover half of the cost for the year. I’m not sure if they will actually give that much, or have that much to give in the first place but I am hopeful. For a while, I was feeling like a sell-out because I was going to have to rely on a local NGO to help fund part of it, even if it was only $60 a month, but if the Conseil du Cercle actually provides the funds that they were talking about, then I won’t have to. Also, I realized that I wasn’t selling out, I was just buying myself more time to wean the program off of NGOs and turn it over to the community little by little. By involving the NGO, I would be giving myself more time to find local donors and prevent being thought of as a liar, which I have to say I was very much afraid of. I originally didn’t expect so much interest so quickly. I was prepared for 50 at least, and knew I would have to scramble to find the rest. When I saw that 95 had already paid, I was very nervous until people started expressing how much they wanted to help. With that knowledge, I knew I could go climbing and go to Halloween without stressing too much (the Prefet had offered $100, which immediately covered the first month). When I was gone I heard about the additional 30, but also heard about an local organization donating another $100, giving me even more than enough time to either make sure money was coming in from the big donors or to find other means. Regardless, the worst thing I could do was promise something and not be able to deliver. Not only would this destroy the project but it would damage any reputation I had, preventing me from doing the majority of what I had planned in the future.

If you want to know how we avoid corruption, here it is: Money is given to a representative (at this point basically only me but will include other soon) and these donors are given a receipt. The money is then put in a bank account. The bank account belongs to the CAP (commune school organizational body government run) and the CGS (school board), but they cannot actually remove money. For money to be removed, the cantine (restaurant-ish place) women have to go see the CAP treasurer, who writes out a check for the amount of money that needs to be withdrawn according to the number of students eating at her cantine (this is tallied by the school directors when the children bring him their parent’s money). Once the CAP treasurer has written the check, the cantine owner takes it to the CGS treasurer, who then signs the check. Now the cantine owner can go to the bank to make the withdrawal.

The next couple months aren’t supposed to be that busy, but since I’ll be doing a lot of traveling, I have to cram that much more into the time that I’m here. I also have internet at site now, and I’m on almost every day, but it’s not fast enough for me to use gchat.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Help Kate Build a School!

This is the end of the last post. It was a bit long so I didn't want it to get lost.

Kate, a current Peace Corps Volunteer, decided to build a set of 3 classrooms for her school to serve as a new middle school. I was skeptical at first because of what they had taught us in PST about how unsustainable it was. But, when we got to talking about it, she explained that it was what the community really needed. Malian schools are generally over capacity, but her community in particular has a problem. She did a long Needs Assessment session with her school and it was overwhelming that they need a new school. Peace Corps approved a PCPP for her which is where volunteers can raise money from friends and family in the States. I am trying as hard as possible not to use any funds that are not directly from the community, but if you would like to support a Peace Corps Volunteer I would highly encourage you to donate to her school, any amount would help her. The community is donating almost 40% of the project, so what she is asking for is what remains.

Changing Views

As many of you know, I read a lot while I'm here. Most recently I read a book called "Three Cups of Tea" (another of the many books my dad always told me to read but that I never got around to until I got here), and I have to say I was pretty motivated by the drive that Greg Mortenson has to improve the lives of children in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His philosophy is right on point, in that he understands that in the best way to help someone improve his/her life is to provide hir (gender neutral pronoun) with an education, and a way to jumpstart that education is by providing a place in the community for education to take place. He also does a great job explaining how ignorance and violence is what leads to hatred and religious extremism. Nobody is born a priori with hatred towards an ethnic group, a country, or a religion, it is taught or experienced. Before joining the Peace Corps, I had lost a lot of my faith in the United States. I can't say that I've always been very patriotic, but reading the books I did, seeing what was on the news, taking the classes that I did, I had developed some very pessimistic views on the world and especially the States. Since coming to Mali, things have changed. I still follow the views I had because I consider them realistic, but I see that individuals can make a difference and that the efforts made by individuals are recognized by thousands of people that will never be heard. The individuals that make the difference don't need 10 degrees from the Ivy League schools or have millions of dollars. Everyone says this, and I know I'm not saying anything new, but it makes me optimistic.
As I was saying, since I've joined Peace Corps, I've become more patriotic. After answering questions about women's rights, gay rights, the amount of religions and different ethnic groups in the US, I think back and I have to remind myself that the US faar from a perfect country but it is pretty awesome. People here have an incredible amount of respect for the United States (or Ameriki as they like to call it). Many of them understand the catch 22 they are stuck in, where they are given loans and can never imagine paying it back, and that wealthy people in France, the US, and many other "developed" countries want Mali to remain in it's state of perpetual development, but they respect this. (This is an observation made by many Malians) Mali has always been ruled by different ethnic groups at different periods of history, and while a specific ethnic group is taking over, everybody fights tooth and nail, but as soon as the most powerful gains control, everybody accepts their new leader, gets back to living day to day. They say this is exactly what happens during presidential elections (which is basically the opposite of what happens in our supposedly democratic country where elected officials are then politically torpedoed by a small group of people won't profit for that election). So for the US (some mythical country too far away for the majority of Malians to imagine), to be the most powerful country in the world and make the overall decisions for them is perfectly natural. Again I went on a tangent. The communities where Peace Corps volunteers come in, where NGOs come in, and where anybody else comes in to help remember. They remember the name of the first volunteer that came 10+ years ago and brought the first iodized salt and goiters started disappearing. They will remember that you took tea and spent an hour chatting. To them, this is what the real America is. They hear things on the news about America bombing Iraq or Afghanistan, and they think it's terrible, but what they are judging the United States on and who Americans are, are those they come in contact with on a day to day basis. One of my village's favorite things to do is talk about previous volunteers that were either in Tominian or in surrounding villages. Half the time they don't know what the volunteer was really doing but they do know, that this person went halfway around the world to come learn their language and their culture, was willing to chat with them on an equal footing and share their knowledge, all with the intention of helping. Greg Mortenson works in countries that supposedly hate us like Afghanistan and Pakistan, but when he goes in to build a school, those people know that he is not the man dropping bombs or torturing people in Guantanomo Bay. This is what people judge Americans on.
This demonstrates a shameful division between us and them. Compared to many Americans, the educated, powerful, democratic Americans, that blanket every Muslim as a terrorist, in most countries that we destroy and never bother to rebuild properly, where they supposedly hate Americans, they are making a distinct difference between the American People, and the American Government. The supposedly uneducated are able to understand that those acts are not done by the will of the American People, but by the American Government. It is the American Government they hate, not us. Believe me, without individuals like Greg Mortenson, we would have a much angrier world on our hands.

According to the Peace Corps philosophy, building schools is not necessarily "sustainable". I agree in the sense that unless there is a committee that is committed to taking care of the school and it's desks, helping students find proper materials etc, it isn't very sustainable. But two distinct events have helped change my mind. The second was reading "Three Cups of Tea" where although he seems to throw money at problems, Greg Mortenson only goes to schools that are willing to build the schools themselves. There is a clear motivation on the part of the community to educate their children and Greg gives them the starting push. The first thing that happened was when my good friend Kate, a current Peace Corps Volunteer in a town called, decided to build a set of 3 classrooms for her school to serve as a new middle school. I was skeptical at first because of what they had taught us in PST about how unsustainable it was. But, when we got to talking about it, she explained that it was what the community really needed. Malian schools are generally over capacity, but her community in particular has a problem. She did a long Needs Assessment session with her school and it was overwhelming that they need a new school. Peace Corps approved a PCPP for her which is where volunteers can raise money from friends and family in the States. I am trying as hard as possible not to use any funds that are not directly from the community, but if you would like to support a Peace Corps Volunteer I would highly encourage you to donate to her school, any amount would help her. The community is donating almost 40% of the project, so what she is asking for is what remains.